In this article we will discuss about the views of Fa-Hien on India during Gupta empire.
Fa-hien, a Chinese pilgrim, visited India during the reign of Chandra Gupta II. His primary aim was to visit the Buddhist religious places and to take with him the copies of the Buddhist religious texts. He, therefore, travelled through the Gupta empire and also wrote down his impressions about India. As his main interest was religion, we know nothing about the political condition of India from his account. However, his account helps us to know something about the social and religious condition of that period.
Fa-hien started his voyage to India in 399 A.D. He travelled through the desert of Gobi and reached Khotan where he found many Buddhist monasteries. He then visited Shanshan. Tarter Pradesh and Kasagara. The then ruler of Kasagara was a Buddhist. Therefore, he met Buddhist monks and found many monasteries there also. After that, he crossed the Pamir plateau, Swat and entered Gandhara Pradesh.
He reached India about 400 A.D. and remained here up to 411 A.D. He visited Peshawar, Taxila, Mathura, Kannauj. Sravasti, Kapilavastu, Sarnath and many other places. He embarked for Ceylon at the sea-port of Tamralipti (West Bengal). He remained in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for two years and then reached back China via Jawa in 414 A.D.
His account, which refers to India, provides us the following information:
1. Political Condition and Administration:
Fa-hien did not record anything specifically about the political condition of India. He did not mention even the name of Chandra Gupta II in whose dominion he must have lived for more than five years. However, we can deduce something from his records. It is inferred that the administration of the Guptas was liberal, the people enjoyed economic prosperity and the burden of taxes on them was not heavy.
There were a few quarrels or disputes and the people rarely felt the necessity to approach the judiciary. Mostly, corporal punishment was avoided and usually fines were exacted from the offenders according to the nature of their offence. Those who attempted repeated offences against the state were punished severely and in that case their right hands were cut off. It suggests that the offences were few and minor and, probably, death penalty was absent.
The primary source of income of the state was land-revenue. The people were free to move from one land to another. The government servants were paid in cash and they were barred from taking presents or bribery from the people. Monasteries, Sanghas, temples and their property and other religious endowments were free from government taxes. The public highways were secure and free from the menace of thieves and dacoits.
Fa-hien did not suffer any trouble during his journey from one place to another in India. The kings and the rich people had built rest-houses (Dharamshalas) where every convenience was provided to the travellers. They had also built hospitals for the poor where free medicine was distributed to them.
The account, thereby, suggests that the administration of the Guptas was benevolent and successful and the rulers not only maintained peace and security within the empire but also looked after the welfare of their subjects.
2. The Social Condition:
The people were prosperous and content with their lives. Public morality was high. Mostly the people were vegetarians and avoided meat and onions in their meals. They did not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Only Chandalas (Untouchables), who lived outside cities, engaged in hunting and fishing and were meat eaters.
The rich people vied with each other in practice of benevolence and righteousness. They established houses for dispensing charity and medicine and gave large donations to temples, monasteries, Sanghas etc. All this suggests that the people were prosperous, happy, liberal and simple in morals.
3. The Religious Condition:
Buddhism and Hinduism were the most popular religions at that time. Buddhism was more popular in Punjab, Bengal and the region around Mathura. In Mathura, there were many Buddhist monasteries and even government servants respected Buddhist monks. The Hindu religion was more popular in the ‘middle kingdom’ (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and a part of Bengal) which formed the heart of Chandra Gupta II’s dominions.
The emperor worshipped Vishnu but he was tolerant to other faiths. Buddhism and Hinduism flourished side by side which suggests that the people observed tolerance in religious matters.
4. The City of Pataliputra:
Fa-hien lived in Pataliputra for nearly three years and studied the Sanskrit language. He described that there were separate Sanghas both of the Hinayana and Mahayana sects, which provided education to students gathered from all parts of India. The Palace of Emperor Asoka also existed at that time, about which Fa-hien remarked that “it might have been built not by men but by gods’.
Fa-hien was also very much impressed by chariot-processions here. He mentioned that on the eighth day of the second month of every year, a huge procession earning images of the Buddha and Bodhisattavas was arranged by the people. The rich people of Pataliputra had established a big hospital in the city where free medicines and food were distributed to the poor people.
5. Other Cities:
Fa-hien described that places like Bodh-Gaya, Kapilvastu, Sravasti, Kusinagar etc. which were the religious places of Buddhism no longer existed as cities. This suggests that Buddhism was no more popular in the ‘Middle Kingdom”. Fa-hien visited Malwa as well and praised its climate.
6. Trade and Sea Voyages:
Fi-hien described internal and foreign trade of India as well as its ports. According to him, both internal and external trade of India was in a progressive stage and the Indians carried on sea-voyages. According to him India had trade relations with China, countries of south-east Asia and western Asia as well as with Europe. On its western sea-coast, India had ports like Cambay, Sopara and Baroach while on its eastern coast Tamralipti was a famous port from w here Fa-hien went to Sri Lanka on an Indian ship.
Thus, the account of Fa-hien, though not sufficient by itself, provides us some useful information about the social, economic, religious and moral conditions of the Indian people of the Gupta age.